Before I begin, I have a confession to make. Studying in general was never really my fortē. I lacked vigour and enthusiasm, stumbled my way across my school days, but managed to scrape through with a presentable SPM certificate.
Perhaps my lack of effort was a result of my not knowing what I wanted for my future. All I knew was that I wanted to travel the world, be immeasurably rich, and disgustingly powerful.
By the time I was in Form 5, I was acquainted with AFS Antarabudaya Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation focused on student exchange programmes. This was because my family hosted a high school German exchange student (Monika, or Murni as she likes to be called) when I was 14. The more I learnt about AFS, the more the idea of going abroad for a year appealed to me. AFS’ goal was to create peace through intercultural understanding with exchange programmes; I was all up for world betterment and instilling some cultural diversity in my life. After all, the application fee was only RM20!
However, I had to face a major barrier before I made my decision. Should I be accepted as an exchange student, my family would not be able to provide full financial support for me. There were scholarships for AFS programmes, but many of them were only partial, and even a partial payment was a heavy burden for my family to bear. Even if I used my savings and worked part-time, the final cost would still not only burn a hole in my pocket, but set fire to my trousers as well!
Though RM20,000 for a year abroad is actually reasonable when you think of how much you spend on necessities here in Malaysia, paying that amount up front was still rather difficult for me to manage. However, fear not – when abroad, your food and lodging expenses are covered by AFS.
This was about the time I found out about the YES scholarship. Funded by the US State department, it is a full scholarship for six months to the US granted to some 40 Malaysian students yearly. To ease post-September 11 tensions, the scholarship was given to students of countries with a predominant Muslim population, although students of all religions may apply. Of course, decent grades were a must, as we had to maintain a good GPA in America.
Thankfully, I managed to overcome that hurdle with my high school results. After months of applications, I was overjoyed to receive a letter stating that I was accepted and that I was to leave for Indiana, US in the coming January. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the 39 YES scholars in my batch consisted of students from many different states, races, social backgrounds, personalities, and quirks. AFS Malaysia also made it a point to include disabled students in every batch, and mine had two hearing impaired girls.
Even the Orang Asli students were not forgotten as a friend who went with me represented an Orang Asli settlement from Perak. In the US, I was given one of the best experiences in my life. I stayed with a host family for the duration of my exchange – my host father was a high school English teacher and my host mother ran a day care centre. I also had two toddler brothers in the house so I was exposed to different levels of childhood education.
Being alone in a country foreign to me had its benefits. I became more outspoken and confident. I also became more mature in my thinking and actions. I began to value different cultures and also realised how much I loved my homeland. I found myself more accepting of others, as I wanted others to be accepting of me. I managed to make amazing friends that I still keep in close contact with.
I finally found myself truly excelling in academic subjects as the America education system allowed me a more liberal selection in courses such as computer design, literature, journalism etc. Even their methods of teaching subjects like History differed; while I used to fail miserably in Malaysia, I managed to maintain high distinctions in American History throughout my stay.
In the end, my experience gave me an accurate reflection of who I am, and exposed another side of me I never thought I might see. After returning to Malaysia, I realised what I wanted for myself: to do something I enjoyed, instead of merely doing what was typically accepted as a ‘proper future’ and having a thoroughly miserable time trying to please everyone else but myself.
So far, I am enjoying my Literature lessons and am extremely glad that I chose this path.
Dina Murad is eccentric, offbeat, and often confused. She is currently enrolled in IIUM/UIA’s English Language and Literature undergraduate course. Dina is simple and prefers to spend her days taking things slowly. Her passion is to travel and to discover different cultures. Click here for more articles.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.